Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese welcomes family’s next generation Company positions itself for continued growth
1/15/2016 - Kate Sander, Cheese Market News
January 15, 2016
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese welcomes family’s next generation
By Kate Sander
WATERLOO, Wis. — For Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, “brothers” isn’t simply a part of the name. Family, starting with the four brothers who began the business, is an important part of what makes this growing farmstead cheese company successful.
“Having our family unit is a huge asset — wives, brothers and children,” says George Crave, who manages the company’s cheese business.
The four Crave brothers — George, Charles, Thomas and Mark — grew up on a small dairy farm and together purchased their Waterloo, Wisconsin, dairy farm in 1980, milking 80 Holsteins. Since then, they have grown the farm into a well-regarded agricultural enterprise that includes 1,700 cows on two separate locations, farming 2,700 acres and, of course, their cheese company.
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese began producing its first cheese in a small on-farm plant in 2002, pumping milk from the family’s then-600 Holstein cows 320 feet through insulated underground pipes to a brand new cheese factory. The goal of the cheese plant was — and is — to add value to the farm’s milk and to continue to grow the business into a sustainable operation for the next generation.
When deciding what cheeses to make 15 years ago, the Craves decided to focus on just a small handful of types.
Fresh Mozzarella is the company’s best-known product and is available coast to coast. It is available in retail and foodservice containers of perline (pearl size), ciliegine (cherry size), bocconcini (ball size), ovoline (egg size), medallions, 8-ounce balls, 1-pound balls and 1-pound logs. The company also offers a marinated ciliegine (marinated in an olive oil/canola oil blend with its own spice mix) in retail and foodservice containers.
The cheese, which began winning awards early on in the company’s cheesemaking venture, continues to be critically acclaimed. Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese’s Fresh Mozzarella Bocconcini took home a first place award from the 2015 American Cheese Society’s competition. At the 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, the company’s Fresh Mozzarella Ovoline took home a first place award while its Marinated Mozzarella placed second in its class.
These national wins are prestigious, but the company also is very proud of a local win: Best of Show at this past year’s Dodge County Fair for its Marinated Mozzarella. George’s wife, Debbie, who serves as vice president of the cheese company, notes strong competition at the fair from local cheesemakers — and the excitement of the community surrounding whomever the winner is — made the win particularly memorable this past summer.
Fresh Mozzarella isn’t the company’s only award winner. Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese also offers Farmer’s Rope, fresh handmade deli string cheese. Shaped like a rope and forming “strings” when pulled apart, the cheese is available in 12-ounce, 2-pound and 3-pound sizes.
This past year, the cheese took first place in its class in the American Cheese Society’s competition as well as at the Wisconsin State Fair.
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese also produces Queso Oaxaca in 12-ounce, 1-pound and 5-pound formats.
In addition, the company offers a Mascarpone crafted from fresh, sweet cream. Described by the Craves as a luxurious and velvety cheese, the Mascarpone is perfect for sweet and savory culinary applications and is available in 8-ounce and 16-ounce retail sizes and a 3-pound deli tub. Over the years, this product also has won its fair share of awards, most recently a second place finish at the Wisconsin State Fair.
While Crave Brothers is mostly content to focus on its mainstay cheeses, new to the company in the past year-and-a-half and available locally in Wisconsin are Cheddar curds in original and jalapeño flavors. The curds won two first place awards — one each for original and flavored — at this past year’s American Cheese Society contest.
George Crave says the company is looking to achieve “some nice growth” in 2016. The size of the company allows it some flexibility in meeting customer needs, he adds.
“We’re very responsive to market needs and are responsive to our small distributors,” he says.
To maintain the Crave Brothers enterprises’ growth and success, every family member in the business has responsibility for a certain area. While George oversees the cheese plant, Charles oversees bookkeeping/feeding, Thomas oversees crop production/maintenance, and Mark is herd manager and personnel manager.
As their children enter adulthood, many of them also are buying in as owners of the business.
The next generation includes George and Debbie’s son, Patrick, a University of Wisconsin dairy science graduate, who has joined his uncle in herd management; and Charlie and Joni’s sons Jordan and Andy, who are involved in crops/machinery and maintenance and mechanics, respectively. Charlie and Joni’s daughter Beth also currently works in customer service.
Debbie Crave credits the Family Business Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in helping the family structure the business. Trusted long-term employees are important in keeping the business running smoothly as well, says George Crave. In addition to family, the Crave enterprises employ 35 at the cheese factory and 25 on the farm.
Another thing that sets the Crave enterprises apart is the family’s commitment to sustainability.
While “sustainable” and “green” may be popular buzzwords, they are more than just a trend for the Craves, Debbie Crave says.
The company’s cheeses aren’t only farmstead; they are produced with renewable energy. The company’s two methane digesters, taking waste from both the farms and the cheese plant, generate enough electricity to power the farm, cheese factory and more than 300 homes, she notes.
The digesters reduce odor from the manure and also provide some saleable products. Liquid byproducts are used on the farm’s fields, and dry organic matter byproducts are used as animal bedding and in potting soil.
To highlight its sustainability practices, the company’s cheeses feature a “Produced with renewable energy” logo featuring a little cow with a green leaf on its tail.
It’s been hard work to get the Crave enterprises to where they are today — increasing the herd size by twentyfold and adding new products along the way. While not every family business is set to succeed, theirs has, and George Crave credits good communication among family members as a critical component for success.
“We have good communication, and everything is set for the next generation to succeed,” he says.
“Looking back, it’s pretty amazing,” he adds.
Some years the business has grown a lot and others the focus has been on improvement.
“My motto is: ‘What’s next?’” George Crave says. “Sometimes it’s nothing except perfecting what we do.”